Tribune editorial: Keep Utah a homeowning state

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Bea Layton who lived in her previous home for 22-years did extensive xeriscaping that has been maintained by the current owner. Now she has plans to the start the process again, although being older and working full time the transformation will take a little more time as she recently used a push mower to trim the grass and weeds that will soon be cleared.

It was once considered the American dream. Now it’s looking more like an American necessity.

After a drop during the recession, home ownership in the United States is on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own the house they live in. In Utah, it’s 70 percent.

But a new report from the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute sees a growing affordability challenge for Utahns wanting to become homeowners. Home prices are rising faster than wages, and after years of low rates, mortgage interest costs are inching up. Together, these trends threaten to undermine Utah’s high rate of homeownership.

That has consequences in a world where pensions and other retirement income have become scarce. For many retirees, the equity in their homes is their single biggest asset as they end their work lives. Without it, the golden years can be leaden.

To be sure, ours is a problem of prosperity. Utahns don’t like rising prices, but we have to like the underlying economic forces. Our homes are becoming more valuable because we have become a more desirable place to live.

Most of the recent discussion about housing in Utah has focused on the lowest end of the income scale. And that is indeed a crisis, one that has brought a lot of talk and some important action.

But less time has been spent on the challenge of getting middle-income families into home ownership. Communities are more stable when residents are literally invested in them. It also lets people build equity while they pay for housing rather than seeing it all vanish in rent.

What would Utah’s situation look like in the extreme? That’s easy. Silicon Valley. Rents and home prices are putting a squeeze on quality of life in the Bay Area, prompting software companies and other employers to look to places like Utah for expansion.

But the Gardner Institute is warning us that we may start to look more like San Francisco than Lehi in that dynamic. How long before those software companies leapfrog us for more affordable housing markets in the Midwest?

Ultimately, it’s about getting people over the down payment hump. The vulnerable here are the ones who can afford the monthly mortgage payment but can’t come up with the thousands needed to become first-time homebuyers.

What can be done? Many of the levers, including interest rates, are out of Utah’s control. We also don’t serve our longterm interests if we accept shortcuts on energy efficiency to keep homes more affordable or let lenders get overly “creative” with 100 percent loans and ticking timebomb adjustable rate mortgages.

But if we can find genuine ways to help young families become homeowners, we build a better home for all of us. It’s worth more attention than it’s getting.